Jan 20, 2011

LongReply – When you care more than 140 characters

We first joined twitter after hearing a lot of buzz about it at SXSW a few years ago. Being more of a "long form" writer, I didn’t quite understand how this "crazy fad" would fit into our marketing and branding. Long story short (see what I did there?), it eventually caught on for us — but not so much for marketing. It’s become more of a customer service tool. Like everything else on the web, apparently.

But it wasn’t exactly smooth sailing…

I remember a while back, when we were going through some server growing pains, people were tweeting all kinds of angry stuff at us. To be honest, a few of the tweets kinda made me want to pull the plug on our twitter account. I remember thinking, "we spend gobs of money on our infrastructure, and some guy 20 gazillion miles away, using some tiny coffee shop’s wifi, tweets that we’re slow and hash-tags us with a ‘fail’?" (By the way, we still listened to that guy, and kept on investing more in our infrastructure.)

And we actually had one guy (who accidentally purchased twice, for a grand total of something like $30) DM us with the following:

Slander threats? Really? And all I have is 140 characters to defend myself?

STFU is a horrible name for a product

So I reacted like any guy would. I asked our developers to come up with a tool that would let me reply to meanies, but with more than 140 characters. If some angry dude wants to tell the public that our software sucks, I should be able to apologize to him in public, then explain to him that we shut his account down because he got too many abuse complaints, because his list was poorly maintained and full of spam traps. See, there are two sides to every story, and it’s only fair to be able to tell mine too. You know, if we’re getting all public about it. Oh yeah, I also asked my developers to call this tool "S.T.F.U."

Thankfully, as I always expect from my employees, they ignored that last suggestion and focused on building a simple, useful tool (probably to make me stfu). They worked on it in their spare time, and decided to just codename it "LongReply."

Meanwhile, I went back to using a variety of different tools: twitter, tweetdeck, cotweet, hootsuite, seesmic, etc. All great tools. And this gave me some time to cool down and reflect on how to use twitter for public customer service.

We all need a little more human

Fortunately, by the time we got an early prototype of LongReply working, I had forgotten (mostly) about the negative stuff, and just used LongReply to give customers really thorough explanations. I noticed that people seemed to be surprised that a) not only were we so willing to help on twitter, but that b) we were actually very thorough in our replies. When you’re not limited to 140 characters, it’s really liberating. You can answer a question, then go on and teach users about other ways we can help:

And that’s when I really started to get excited about all this. It’s simple, really. People just want to talk to humans. That used to mean telephone support. But nowadays, even that’s not instant enough. The wait times, the "dial 1 for English" and the outsourced call center drones who aren’t really helpful at all have become the norm.

It’s why websites like gethuman.com exist.

So where’s the last place we can go, that hasn’t been automated yet, to find a real human being who can just help?

Twitter.

And remember, this is all public. Anybody monitoring the "mailchimp" keyword on twitter sees how we answer our customers. So in a way, help becomes marketing.

So what exactly is LongReply?

Okay, enough back story behind LongReply. Let’s talk about what it does.

It’s a new product we’re launching to the public soon. I think we’re talking about a few weeks.

It’s for listening, and helping. It’s not a "marketing hub" where you can post stuff, and see your message get distributed to all social media networks. It’s actually a bunch of really simple concepts (definitely nothing revolutionary), but when you apply all these simple tools to the problem of customer service, it’s quite handy (imho).

We’ll explain it more as we get closer to launching, but here’s a rough outline of functionality:

Chrome extension and Firefox plugin

You install a browser plugin that automatically adds a link to all tweets like this:

So imagine watching Hootsuite or Tweetdeck, and you see a tweet that you need to respond to. You click to open that tweet in your browser, and voila — there’s a handy LongReply link.

Write more than 140 Characters

After you click the LongReply link in twitter, it’ll pull up your LongReply account where you can just start writing a good, helpful answer. We’ll preview what the 140-char version looks like, and provide a shortened link back to this longer explanation:

As you can see, your long replies can include links, images, and a little formatting. You can also save drafts for later.

Reply as…

Another nice little feature is that if your company has multiple twitter accounts, you can link them all to your LongReply account. Our company has a main twitter account, but we also have one for our Compliance Team, our Webinar team, our API team, and so on. So the little pulldown makes it easy to "reply as…" any of those twitter profiles.

Saved Keyword Search with Sentiment Analysis

My favorite feature is the sentiment analysis. You can setup saved searches (like you can in Tweetdeck, etc), but it doesn’t require real-time monitoring. See, we’re getting to the point where the twitter volume is too much to try to follow. If we stop to take a coffee break, we miss important tweets. So we designed LongReply to have keyword searches, but you’ll notice we don’t do a row of extremely tight columns in order to cram as many tweets as we can (like you’d typically see in most realtime twitter monitoring solutions):

That’s because we’re using some of the sentiment analysis code we tinkered with back when we released our Facebook Comments feature. Instead of having to sit at my desk and watch the twitter stream 24/7, like that scene from Clockwork Orange, LongReply simply alerts us when there are angry (or happy) tweets that we should respond to.

Every hour, LongReply checks to see if there are any "non-neutral" tweets, and sends an email:

We plan to add push alerts to mobile devices (and, obviously some native iPhone and Android apps).

Multiple users

You can setup multiple users on your LongReply account, too. That way, a bunch of people on your staff can help your customers, and we’ll show you which tweets have already been replied to. Whenever we started giving more team members access to twitter, we had a bunch of situations where different people gave customers duplicate tweets. This will help prevent that. You can also specify which twitter accounts employees are allowed to talk through:

This is particularly useful if you have an unfortunate circumstance when an employee (who had access to your twitter account) leaves your company. You just remove them from LongReply, instead of worrying about changing all your twitter and facebook passwords. In the screenshot above, you can see we’re setting up a group for our Compliance Team to talk via the @mailchimpabuse twitter account.

What’s Ahead for LongReply?

We have no idea. It’s partly why we want to open this up to everyone, for free, and just get feedback. We mainly built it for us, but we think there are other companies out there who are struggling to deliver good customer service through social channels, and don’t quite need some of the bigger "enterprisey" solutions on the market (we don’t all have kick-ass mission control rooms like this).

Another thing that’s going to influence where this goes: I’ve always believed we should try to help customers no matter where they are. Have you ever commented on a company’s blog, and noticed messages like, "please don’t ask tech support questions here on our blog"? Yuck. If customers ask for help on the blog, you should try to help there.

Problem is, our blog articles get syndicated over to our Facebook Fan Page. So we’ve got comments over there to answer, too. Makes it hard to keep up with. And our company and functionality is growing, and I honestly can’t keep track of everything MailChimp does anymore. I’m frequently asking other people here "Um, do we actually have that feature? Cool! How’s it work?" So we want to pull in streams from multiple sources: your blog, facebook, twitter — even your help team’s inbox. And we’d love to end up with one place, where anybody in our company can log in and just answer people — no matter where the question was posted.

We also don’t believe this is a replacement for a full-featured help system. I frequently get tweets and blog comments that I need to pass over to a real help desk (Zendesk does this beautifully, I hear). So we hope to be exploring integrations with solutions like that, too. Finally, we think that integrating this app and layering some of your social interactions with your customer database in MailChimp would make a whole lot of sense.

After we get a little feedback from our users. If you’d like to be notified when LongReply launches, sign up for our list.